Ask not what Tony Blair and Bertie Ahern have done for Northern Ireland, but what Northern Ireland has done for them.
The soon-to-be-ex British Prime Minister and the Irish Taoiseach facing into a fraught election will be bombarded with bouquets of praise from (almost) all quarters as they parade together into the Stormont Parliament in Belfast on Tuesday to preside at the opening of a new era of power-sharing between Gerry Adams’s Sinn Fein and Ian Paisley’s Democratic Unionist Party.
To the beleaguered government leaders, Northern Ireland will seem an oasis of bliss. Nowhere else on earth—certainly not at home—could either be certain of being swamped in such gushing adulation.
Few kudos come Blair’s way in other areas these days. One British commentator remarked at the weekend that, “As a liar, Blair is in the Ananias class,” which was surely unfair on Ananias. He, readers will recall, was the chap in Apostles who, with his wife Sapphira, held back part of a gift to the Christian community in Jerusalem and then lied about it. So, God struck the pair of them dead. Something of an over-reaction, I always thought. But there you are. Moves in mysterious ways.
Anyway, the Ananiases are in the ha’penny place compared to Blair when it comes to lying. Telling a fib about a donation to a local group of gospellers is hardly in the same class as generating a tsunami of untruth to clear the ground for the slaughter of innocents.
But Blair can put all that out of mind during his spring break in Belfast. Here, his relentless lies to local politicians over the past 10 years are held up as clinching evidence of his devotion to peace. There had to be a certain amount of, er, creative ambiguity to jolly the Provos and the Paisleyites along, the talking heads nod in agreement in the retrospective TV features.
All credit to Blair for his sustained expertise in dissembling.
The disdain for truth for which Blair is loathed in relation to Iraq is taken as a sign of his devotion to peace in Northern Ireland.
Similarly, Ahern must have wondered over the past few weeks where refuge could be found from the ceaseless assaults on his integrity—before sighing with relief as his eyes swivelled Northwards towards the sweet enclave of serenity that is the Six Counties. A week ago last Sunday, Ahern made a dawn raid on the Irish Constitution to block a judicial tribunal from shining light on his financial affairs. As the morning sun dappled the steeples of Dublin, the Taoiseach and his entourage galloped across town to reach the presidential residence, Aras an Uachtarain, at eight am to obtain President Mary McAleese’s signature on an order dissolving the Dail (parliament) prior to her 10 am departure to the US. As a result, Mr. Justice Mahon announced next morning that, in line with precedent, his hearings into corruption in politics would be suspended until after the May 24th poll.
Ahern’s latest bother arose from a revelation that his former partner, Celia Larkin, had received £30,000 in cash from a developer, Michael Wall, in December 1994. Ahern has explained that the money was intended for payment of stamp (sales) tax and refurbishment costs on a house Mr. Wall was to buy the following year and then rent to Ahern before selling it to Ahern in 1997. The sequence has puzzled many observers, not least because no stamp duty would have been payable on the transaction described by Ahern.
Wall had been among a number of Irish businessmen who’d earlier met Ahern in a room above a pub in Manchester and presented him with £8,000, again in cash, the proceeds, says Ahern, of a “whip-round” organised on the spot for reasons which no-one involved appears able clearly to remember.
In addition, around the same time, Ahern received tens of thousands of pounds in various donations from well-wishers who wanted and were given nothing in return.
Ahern’s way with money is eerily reminiscent of Blair’s relationship with truth. He finds it hard to grasp the concept. During his stint as treasurer of the Fianna Fail party in the 1980s, Ahern co-signed around 1,500 blank party cheques which his flamboyantly corrupt predecessor, the late Charlie Haughey, used for purposes including the purchase of luxury lingerie items in Paris, as well as sumptuous meals and lavish gifts for his mistress. It never occurred to Ahern to wonder why Haughey, whose unexplained wealth was already the subject of much media innuendo, would have wanted thick wads of blank cheques drawn on the party’s account.
And there’s more, much more, as a result of which Ahern can scarcely put his nose outside the door of the aforementioned house in Dublin these days without being waylaid by hacks demanding more detail of his fantastical finances. Hence, the attraction of the North, where nobody, it seems, gives a toss about personal or political propriety, any more than they care about open murder and military disaster in Basra.
Northern Ireland, on this reading, is a place apart, where issues which generate anger and pity in the rest of the world are disregarded by a petty provincial people. The conflict here is deemed to have been a parochial affair, an irrational sectarian squabble, affecting no vital interest outside the Six Counties, and thus eminently amenable to the tender ministrations of carers of the calibre of Blair and Ahern.
It’s understandable that the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach should grasp at an analysis which casts them as heroic peace-makers: dispiriting, though, that the mainstream British and Irish media, virtually without a dissenting voice, should endorse the deception; and ominous that Sinn Fein and the DUP, too, should implicitly accept an analysis which depicts them as narrow, communal parties with no ideology or practical aspiration other than to share office with one another in a regional assembly.
No serious consideration is given in mainstream analysis to the suggestion that the messing and unprincipled mendacity of New Labour in playing one side in Northern Ireland against the other for the past 10 years has served to validate the fault-line of sectarianism as the natural division in our society, thus to produce a poisoned peace which no-one can be certain will survive.
The peace process, in fact, has been driven from below to an extent which contemporary coverage balks at acknowledging. In the narrative offered by the consensus commentariat, the mass of the people appear only fleetingly and as extras, while star billing and centre stage are given over to politicians, paramilitaries, clergypersons and suchlike. But what’s mainly underpinned the Republican and Loyalist ceasefires which made the moves towards a settlement possible has not been far-seeing communal leaders dragging a reluctant people onto the path of peace but, rather, the leaderships’ need to adapt to their communities’ unwillingness any longer to tolerate strategies of sectarian violence.
History will allocate a far more important role than does contemporary journalism to the huge trade union-organised rallies for a different way forward which followed a series of sectarian atrocities in the 1990s.
Successive British governments, with the help of their Irish counterparts, intervened consistently to manipulate the mood reflected in and engendered by a mass movement against communal hatred, to snuff out any spark of radical potential, to insist on a perspective in which the people themselves are seen as the problem and in which Blair and Ahern can be presented as standing benignly above and between two irrational contending communities.
One significant aspect of this perspective is that it leaves entirely out of account the role of Britain’s armed forces as participants in, rather than as arbiters or referees of, the violence which left 3,600 people dead. The 1972 Bloody Sunday massacre of 14 civil rights marchers in Derry by British paratroopers, to take a pertinent example, cannot be fitted into the approved narrative of inter-communal conflict.
The old sorcerer Haughey once enraged Unionists by describing Northern Ireland as “a failed political entity.” His apprentice Ahern, along with Blair, might contentedly murmur to one another at Stormont that at least it hasn’t failed them.
EAMONN McCANN can be reached at: Eamonderry@aol.com